Action flicks these days aren’t dominated anymore by square-jawed, one-note actors like Van Damme, Schwarzenegger, and Statham (they aren’t even mostly the domain anymore of men, but that’s an article for another day). In recent years, the leading men of the best “actioners,” as they’re known in Variety-speak, are heavy-hitting thespians like Liam Neeson and Denzel Washington, whose acting chops elevate the genre to a whole new level. In The Equalizer movies, for example, Denzel brings compelling depth to a character that would be one-dimensional in a lesser talent: a chivalric hero in a world without knights.
The Equalizer 3 opened in theaters last week, and I was in one of them to check out the latest installment of the franchise, happily contributing a few dollars toward the $42 million the film raked in domestically over the long Labor Day weekend.
If you’re unfamiliar with the movies, in the first Equalizer outing in 2014, Denzel (and let’s face it, he has reached the stratosphere of one-name celebrity, like Sting or Madonna) plays Robert McCall, a quiet, mysterious loner whose unassuming demeanor belies his lethal special ops training. Living like a monk, as one baffled character puts it, while working nine-to-five at a Home Depot-type store, the widowed McCall, a retired assassin from “the Agency,” flies under everyone’s radar.
McCall confesses in that film that he had once done things that he wasn’t proud of, but that he had promised his now-deceased wife that “I would never go back to being that person.” And indeed, he now lives by such an honorable code that he chides acquaintances about character failings like swearing and eating junk food. But he is supportive and inspiring as well: he helps coach a hapless coworker to prepare for a better-paying job as a security guard, for example, and he encourages the dream of a singing career for a young Russian call girl he has befriended at the local coffee shop, where he hangs out and reads during sleepless nights. Coming to the aid of this damsel in distress brings down the wrath of ruthless Russian sex traffickers – but they, like everyone else, underestimate McCall.
McCall is also a big reader, working his way through a list of the 100 Best Books. At one point the call girl sees him with a new book and asks what it’s about. “It is about a guy who is a knight in shining armor,” McCall replies, “except he lives in a world where knights don’t exist anymore.”
Though the title goes unmentioned, it’s clear even from this short description that the classic he is reading is Don Quixote, the massive novel by Miguel de Cervantes published in two parts, in 1605 and 1615. The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha (its full title) is considered the grandest monument of literature in Spanish and an extraordinarily influential work of modern Western literature. In 2002, 100 major writers from 54 countries voted Don Quixote the best work of fiction in the world. It is sometimes called the first novel, and has been translated into more languages than any book but the Bible.
The book was written and set in an era after the high point of chivalry in the Middle Ages; the knightly class in which that ideal flourished had largely died out by Cervantes’ time. But Don Quixote was a man so obsessed with tales of knightly heroism from that bygone era that he made it his mission to “travel the four corners of the earth in search of adventures on behalf of those in need, this being the office of chivalry and of knights errant.” Through him, he believed, chivalry would be reborn.
A knight errant, by the way, specifically refers to a figure that appears often in chivalric literature (either medieval or from later periods like the Romantic or Victorian eras), a knight who is not beholden to any feudal lord but who wanders the land (hence the Latin-based word “errant”) in search of injustices to make right.
The point of the Don Quixote reference in the movie, of course, is that McCall (whose name, of Scottish and Irish origin, means “powerful in battle”) is himself a knight errant – albeit not in shining armor – in a world in which chivalry is scorned by men and women alike as outdated and sexist, and selfless knights are in short supply. Even the cops in The Equalizer are corrupt, which infuriates McCall; after delivering a serious beatdown to a couple of them, he lectures them about having dishonored their badge and having failed “to protect and to serve” – a motto which could easily have been derived from the medieval chivalric code. That code required that knights defend the defenseless, and – as one 19th century writer put it – “to everywhere and always be the champion of the Right and the Good against evil and injustice.”
In the Equalizer sequels, McCall continues to unleash righteous violence on unrepentant villains (he always offers them the opportunity to “do the right thing” before delivering an executioner’s justice). In the newest installment, McCall finds himself in an Old World coastal town in Southern Italy, where the locals’ sense of community and hospitality gradually erodes his wary, solitary nature. When a pack of drug-trafficking mafia animals arrives to terrorize the helpless innocents of the village he has begun to consider home, McCall grants the interlopers one polite request to take their dirty business elsewhere – before unleashing hell.
By contrast, consider another film franchise about a retired assassin: the John Wick films starring Keanu Reaves as a weary contract killer who wants to wash his hands of the guild of assassins to which he has belonged. These killers too live by a code, but not a chivalric one; the only morality of the Wick films is “honor among thieves,” because the assassins are all bound by a set of traditional rules that determine how and where the killers are allowed to conduct their lucrative business.
Wick is no knight errant in search of innocents to protect; on the contrary, in film after film (there are four so far), his motivation is either revenge (e.g., for the killing of his dog in the first film) or simply survival as he becomes the target of the underworld of assassins he has quit. There quite simply is no other moral motivation or worldview in the Wick films. The franchise has a very slick, stylish look and is set in the stylized world of a secret international society, which is entertaining on a shallow level, but it cannot compete with the Equalizer films in terms of emotional and moral depth.
The aging Don Quixote may have famously tilted crazily at windmills, hallucinating them to be dragons, but Robert McCall, in each film of The Equalizer trilogy, puts himself between very real evil and the innocents he feels compelled to defend. He does it because “to protect and to serve,” at risk of his own life, is in his nature. At least one critic has complained that the first Equalizer movie’s “sense of good and evil is a little too clear cut,” but in a jaded entertainment world too often awash in moral ambiguity and equivalence, it’s refreshing – and yes, inspiring – to spend a couple of hours in a movie theater with a character who harks back to the uncompromising, selfless heroism of a bygone ideal.
Follow Mark Tapson at Culture Warrior.